When our legislators and Gov. Andrew Cuomo were busy trumpeting the easy benefits of a tax cap for our communities, they left the most important job undone. Despite Gov. Cuomo's campaign promises of mandate relief, and the legislature's promises of the same, almost nothing has been done in Albany to free schools of costly New York state mandates that have driven school budget increases locally.
While lowering property taxes is important, without specific steps to reduce mandates enacted by our Senate, Assembly and governor, students will suffer.
After four consecutive years of state aid freezes and cuts, school budgets have been squeezed and tightened to the point where our students are losing programs. These programs, such as advanced coursework, reading support in elementary schools, and extracurricular programs, help prepare our students for their futures. Losing access to these programs at a time when schools in downstate regions have been able to expand programming has put our students at a competitive disadvantage when they apply to colleges.
Between rising health care costs, soaring pension costs, and mandated contractual "step" obligations, schools have incredible cost pressures. The answer from the governor and Legislature to these costs: "cap the tax levy."
While we support the aim of limiting tax growth, this tax levy cap focuses on a symptom, rather than the root cause of the problem of increasing costs of the schooling of our children.
There is, however, a clear solution to this problem. In November, an historic alliance of interests proposed some clear and specific steps for our legislators to relieve schools of burdensome mandates. This initiative - Let NY Work - is supported by the State Business Council, the Farm Bureau, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the New York Conference of Municipal Officials, the New York State School Boards Association, the New York State Association of Realtors, and the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
Specific proposals include:
Offering two retirement options to new government employees, each cheaper than the traditional pensions that are driving employer contributions by schools and local government.
Mandating that a local government's ability to pay be considered in labor contract arbitration and ensuring that the arbitration process is more transparent.
Eliminating some state provisions in public construction that drive up costs
Freezing "step increases" that continue automatically for many public employees even if their labor contracts expire. School leaders have argued that step increases guarantee raises for teachers and others and disincentivize "good faith" bargaining. Freezing automatic step increases would go a long way to allowing schools to negotiate affordable contracts.
Requiring all public employees to pay a minimum health insurance cost.
Prohibiting new mandates from Albany or require a supermajority of the Legislature before schools and local governments can take on new duties or responsibilities from Albany without getting funding for the mandate.
The Chautauqua County School Boards Association and Far West Council of Superintendents strongly support these measures. We encourage members of our communities to contact Sen. Catharine Young's office and Assemblyman Andrew Goodell's office to voice your support.
Gary Cerne is president of the Far West Council of School Superintendents. Ray Fashano is executive director of Chautauqua County School Boards Association. The two organizations are advocacy groups of local school leaders and school board members who seek to represent common positions to support the education of children in our region.